Yesterday I went to this fest in Maryland for the second straight year. It takes place at the state fairground, which is a nice venue. This year it was indoors, in a building called the Cow Palace, which is essentially a giant warehouse. It worked well in the cold and rainy weather, but I liked the outdoor space under the grandstands that they used last year a bit better. We rented a van with 10 friends with one more joining us later. We had the VIP tickets, which gets you into the fest at noon, two hours before the rest of the crowd. For me this meant that we could try some of the higher end bourbons without waiting in line or worrying that they would run out of something. Since the fest has 3 focuses, I'll break the review into sections accordingly.
I thought the beer list was average for a festival of this scope. No big surprises or any real special beers. I got to try some local stuff I haven't had before, a couple of decent entries from Oliver Breweries, based in the Pratt Street Alehouse in Baltimore--Coventry Cream, a northern English bitter, and one called Old Habit (brown ale). Some other beers/brewers I saw or tried at the fest: Duvel Green, a few staples from Ommegang, other locals Duclaw and Gordon Biersch, Old Dominion Oak Barrel Stout, Sierra Nevada Glissade, Oskar Blues, Porkslap. Some usual suspects--Sam Adams introducing their "Rustic" saison which was just okay, Guinness, Magic Hat. The two best beers there may have been St. Feuillien Brune and Urthel. I may have missed a beer table that would have changed my overall opinion, but I really wasn't there for the beer.
Here comes the good part. Wild Turkey is my new favorite distiller because they gave me a free t-shirt. Just kidding. There were too many bourbons to name, let me just tell you some of the highlights. I got to try two entries from the Parker's Heritage Collection from Heaven Hill. The Golden Anniversary edition contains bourbon from barrels from each of the four different decades of Parker Beam's tenure as master distiller. It was delicious. The other Parker's was a wheated 17 year, also good, much sweeter in taste than the anniversary bottle. I had some Maker's 46, their newish bourbon finished with oak staves attached to the inside of the barrel. It's like Maker's but more complex. The Maker's booth is famous for letting you dip your tasting glass into their famous red wax. The Knob Creek 9 year single barrel is the latest from Jim Beam, it was nice, as well, but I don't know that I'm in a rush to shell out 40 clams for it anytime soon. Two of us attended a tutored tasting that came with a free sparerib and a few samples of whisky. One of the bourbons you couldn't get in the main room--Jefferson's 17. It was quite good, but this was at the end of a long day of drinking so I can't say I remember it clearly. The tasting was still pouring Maker's 46 as well, though they had run out of it in the main area (I was glad bc/ my buddy missed it the first time around). The tasting presenter gave a basic overview of bourbon and then had us taste some products. It was really more of an ad campaign than anything; one of the products was sweet tea bourbon, which tasted good in my drunken state but took away all credibility from the session for me. My wife would have given a better tutorial on bourbon, as evidenced by Nicole's bourbon lesson on this very blog.
Their were plenty of other good bourbons to try. Elijah Craig 12 and 18, Evan Williams single barrel, Blanton's, Four Roses Small Batch and Single Barrel, the Jim Beam small batch line including Basil Hayden's, Booker's etc. Wild Turkey had the 101, of course, but also Rare Breed, Russell's Reserve 10, Russell's Reserve Rye. Woodford Reserve is one of my favorites, but when I went to get a second pour of it I saw the worker pouring some back into the bottle from someone's tasting glass bc/ he poured too high above the 1 oz. line. Disgusting. Pappy Van Winkle 23 would have been another highlight, but my friend Brad shared his Christmas bottle with us the night before--we compared it to the 15 year which I brought down. In any case I think they ran out of the Pappy 23 at the Friday night session. The real highlight for me was the High West Rye table. I've had their Rendevous Rye in the past, it's a blend of a 16 year 80% rye and 6 year old 95% rye (I think they get their stock from Four Roses), it's unmalted rye content gives it a cinnamony, herbal/minty taste. At the table they had that, their Bourye (a bourbon rye blend), and one called Double Rye, which was my favorite. I also got one of the last tastes of their 21 year old rye, of which they only brought one bottle. They were also sampling their unaged Oat Whisky, which I just had at a promo at a liquor store near me. The whisky guy in that store says it's kind of like a tequila, especially in the nose. I concur, and I think High West is doing some interesting stuff, for sure. But not just interesting. Their whiskies are damn good.
There were free samples of pig that you could pick right from the pig carcass, but everything else to eat was an additional cost. I had a pretty solid pulled pork after already having a pig sandwich earlier in the day (you need to eat a lot to soak up all that booze, might as well be pig). There were some pretty fantastic potato pancakes and onion rings, as well. The event has some other entertainment besides just drinking and eating, including live music, trashy looking "cowgirls" walking around interviewing drunks, and beanbag toss, or cornhole. All in all it was a great time. I think the fests are a fun way to try a bunch of stuff, the drawback being the feeling that you need to drink enough to get your money's worth, or drink certain bourbons even though they all start to run together after a few shots. I think I'd generally rather spend the money on a decent bottle and sit with it over time, getting to know it, taking notes, etc., than taste 10 different bourbons over a couple of hours. On the other hand, I can't afford to shell out 150 dollars for Parker Beam's hand selected finest stuff, so it's fun to say I got to try it. And I didn't drink myself sick, though I was hungover at like 10 PM, not fun if you've ever experienced that.
I'll likely be back next year, but for now I've had my fill.